Located on the Terrace Level of the Fairmont Hotel at 950 Mason Street, the Tonga Room is a cocktail lounge and restaurant designed in the Polynesian Pop, or “Tiki,” style. The Tonga Room occupies the site of the old Fairmont “Plunge,” an indoor swimming pool (still extant) constructed in 1929 at the rear of the Fairmont Hotel. The Tonga Room originally opened in 1945 as a nautical-themed bar. The space was completely remodeled twice since 1945; once in 1953 in the “Hawaiian style,” and again in 1967, when it achieved its current “High Tiki” appearance. One of the Tonga Room’s signature features – the half-hourly tropical rain shower – was introduced in the 1953 remodel. Aside from several minor renovations, the Tonga Room has remained largely the same since 1967. Built at the apex of the Polynesian Pop style, not so long before it began to decline in popularity, the Tonga Room represents a highly evolved (and rare example) of the so-called “High Tiki” style in San Francisco and California as a whole. With its lava rock walls, lagoon, half-hourly rain showers, floating “Band Boat,” salvaged nautical elements, and custom-carved Tikis, the Tonga Room is by any measure the best example of the Polynesian Pop style ever built in San Francisco.
VerPlanck, Christopher. Department of Parks and Recreation, Primary Record and Building, Structure, and Object Record – “The Tonga Room.” San Francisco: 2009.
Kirsten, Sven. The Book of Tiki. Köln: Taschen, 2004.
Make sure to enter the Fairmont Hotel via the California Street entrance. That way you can see the niche at the north end of the corridor. Look very closely at every detail as you proceed down the corridor toward the Tonga Room proper. Located in a non-descript basement level of the hotel, the entire entry sequence gradually prepares you for your immersion in the dim, torch-lit space. Note the hand-crafted Polynesian fabrics and lauhala mats used as wall coverings in the Entry Alcove, the bamboo and carved wood Island Huts and Canoe House, as well as the multitude of Tikis that are arrayed around the space. Make sure to look out for the salvaged ship’s wheel and other flotsam and jetsam salvaged from the S.S. Foerster. Although it will be hard to miss, make sure you pay attention to the Lagoon at the center of the room and enjoy the half-hourly rain showers.
The Tonga Room is a respite from present-day San Francisco and an escape from the everyday grind. It is also a very well-preserved and ambitious example of the “High Tiki” style in San Francisco, and indeed, the United States. In an era of “retro” or “nouveau” Tiki bars like San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove or Tiki No in Los Angeles, the Tonga Room remains an oasis of the old school.